Posts Tagged ‘gps’

When Geolocation Doesn’t Locate

Geolocation in today’s smartphones is a wonderful thing. The A-GPS chip in your phone talks to the satellites whizzing around above our heads and asks them where we are. If that doesn’t work then a graceful degrading process, via public wifi triangulation and then cell tower triangulation will tell our phones where we are. Except when something odd happens.


And odd is the only thing you can use to describe the fact that I’m currently sitting in Teddington in Southwest London and thanks to some glitch in the matrix, either Foursquare or my phone’s A-GPS seems to think that a voting station in New England, yes, New England USA is close and local to me.

Geolocation is wonderful except when it doesn’t.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

A First Step Towards Indoor Navigation. Literally

The problems started the moment GPS became a commodity and made the transition from the car to the mobile device. Nowadays, GPS can be found in a vast range of smartphones and navigation is possible without being confined to your car. Of course, it’s not always a great experience. GPS works best when there’s a direct line of sight to the satellites whizzing around over your head and there are times when you just can’t get a GPS lock. A-GPS was devised to help with such situations, allowing your location enabled to device to take advantage of a variety of other sensors, such as cell tower and wifi triangulation technologies.

But even then, GPS just doesn’t work indoors most of the time and indoor location and routing has become something of the Holy Grail for navigation technology vendors. Granted there have been lots of technologies developed which use non A-GPS technologies such as RFID and other near field sensors. But so far these all require a not insignificant investment to install and require specialist devices to take advantage of; none of which are as ubiquitous as the combination of smart phone and GPS.

Maybe we’re looking too deeply at this challenge. Take a category of location that lots of people go to, such as shopping malls, where GPS usually isn’t available, and map each mall to a high degree of accuracy, both in terms of the layout of the mall and in terms of the stores and concessions in that mall. Add in key features, such as multiple levels, staircases, escalators and lifts and you can build a spatial map of the mall which doesn’t need sensors. Simply tell your phone where you are and where you want to go and you can provide simplistic directions, without the need for GPS.

FastMall - Mall Overview

It’s obvious when you stop to think about it.

Whilst it’s not the voice guided, constantly updated, turn by turn navigation that we’re used to in conventional satnav, as a technology it’s simple to implement and FastMall, an iPhone app, has done just that.

So how does it work? Like most location based apps, FastMall taps into your iPhone’s onboard GPS allowing you to search for malls near to you (as a side note, this location based search isn’t geofenced at all, searching for malls around me in Berlin returns a huge list of European malls). Select the mall you’re either at or are going to and you download the mall’s map and data to your device. At this stage your need for GPS or even for a cellular signal is over. The locations of each store in the mall (even including toilets, staircases and escalators) are now on the phone. Navigating to the store you need is elegantly simplistic; simply tell the app where you want to go and tell the app where you are and you get a (literally) step by step guide to reach your destination.

FastMall - Navigation Setup

Let’s take an example of a mall I know reasonably well; the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara, California. I’ve parked my car in the car park next to Macy’s and I want to get to the Apple Store. Assuming I’ve downloaded the mall map data (and this is in the US so there’s no guarantee I can do this in the car park as this is AT&T territory) I simply search for the Apple Store as my destination and then search for Macy’s as my starting point and I’m presented with precise walking directions on how to get there.

  1. Exit Macy’s
  2. Walk until you see Nine West and go straight
  3. Walk until you see Marc Ecko Cut & Sew and turn slight left
  4. Walk until you see Jessica Mcclintock and go straight
  5. Walk until you see MAC Cosmetics and go straight
  6. Walk straight until you see your destination on the right
  7. Enjoy. You have reached Apple Store

FastMall - You Have Reached Your Destination

I’ll forgive the app’s designers the slightly stilted phrasing in the directions but overall the experience is simple and seamless. It doesn’t take a vast leap of the imagination to see this sort of hybrid A-GPS and spatial map technique extended to other types of location, such as railway stations, conference centres and other pedestrian areas.

Now yes, I know this is iPhone only, yes I know this needs a high end smartphone and yes, this would really benefit from being integrated into an overall maps and navigation experience. But it’s a significant step towards real world, usable indoor navigation. Sometimes the simple approach outpaces the technological sensor driven approach we’ve become used to. Expect to see this sort of technology coming your phone in the not too distant future.

Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office, Invalidenstrasse, Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

GPS Lock Fail Rage

Isn’t GPS a wonderful invention? In the space of a few seconds, your GPS enabled handset can give you your precise location on the face of the Earth, allowing mobile maps to work, routing and navigation to get you to where you want to be or earning you another Mayor badge on a well known location based social networking site.

Except when it doesn’t … you’re in an urban canyon, you’re deep in a building or underground where you just can’t get a GPS lock and you stand there watching the “waiting for GPS” message to disappear. GPS lock fail rage.

Horrible Truth: All Technological Progress ...

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal seems to sum up the rage and frustration rather neatly. We’ve all been there …

Written and posted from the Hotel Mercure An Der Charite in Berlin (52.530429, 13.381361)

Does Location Need Some PR Love?

In an interview with GoMo News earlier this year, I talked about “the Bay Area bubble”, this is the mind-set found in Silicon Valley “where a lot of the products and services coming out seem to think your user will always have a smartphone, and will always have a GPS lock with an excellent data connection”. But does the so called location industry live in its own version of the Bay Area Bubble? Let’s call it the “location privacy bubble” for the sake of convenience.

Last week an article entitled “Can you digital photos reveal where you live?” was posted on the Big Brother Watch blog; pop over there and read it for a moment, it’s only three paragraphs long …

… welcome back. My first thought on reading that article was “well yeah, duuh“. Followed up by the slightly more lengthy thought of “well yeah, duh … of course a geotagged photo can reveal where you live, if you’ve enabled geotagging, if you understand EXIF data, if you’ve uploaded the photo to the internet and if you’ve set the visibility of that photo to public … upload enough photos and sufficient patterns will emerge that should give a good indication of where you live“.

But I’d be willing to bet that most people’s thought on reading that article was much more along the lines of “s**t … I didn’t know that“. For those of us in the location industry, we should sit up and take note of this reaction.

I Love PR

Here on the inside of the location industry it’s relatively easy to dismiss articles such as the Big Brother Watch one. We know enough to make an informed decision on whether the location component of a service is opt in or opt out. With a bit of background research we can even find out whether a service utilises your location in stealth mode, with potentially abusive consequences, such as recent news that some free apps on the Android mobile platform are secretly sharing their location without the user’s knowledge.

With today’s ever changing technology making a level of technical sophistication available to the mass market that would have been unheard of 10 years ago, maybe it’s time for Location to engage the services of a good Public Relations agency to move the visibility and benefits of the location component of services away from the dense legalese of the EULA and away from burying the control of location deep away inside a densely nested set of configuration options.

If we don’t then the first that the majority of the general public will hear of location privacy will be when a story hits the tabloid media, such as when proof of infidelity of a celebrity due to a location based app on their phone is used in a high profile divorce proceedings. And that will be a sad day for all of the location industry.

Photo Credits: DoktorSpinn on Flickr.
Written and posted from the BA Lounge at LHR T5 51.4735445775, -0.487390325)

As Location Goes Mainstream, So Does The Potential For Abuse

Geolocation isn’t really anything new. In a lot of cases we’ve come to expect it. Most smartphones sold today have an on-board GPS receiver and it’s considered a selling point for a handset to have one. Today’s mobile mapping applications and Location Based Mobile Services make use of the location fix that GPS provides. We’re used to our technology saying “you are here“. Without this there’d be no Ovi Maps, no Google Maps, no Foursquare and no Facebook Places.

Long before we put up a network of over 20 satellites a less accurate version of geolocation was available. Pretty much anything that puts out a signal in the radio spectrum can be used to triangulate your position, if there’s enough radio sources spead out over a wide area and if someone’s done the leg work needed to geolocate you based on the position and strength of those radio sources. This can be done with mobile cell towers, with radio masts and more recently with the proliferation of wifi enabled access points, both in people’s homes, in offices and in public areas.

No matter where you go, there you are - Buckaroo Bonzai

The process of wifi geolocation, sometimes called Wifi Positioning System or WPS, is sometimes combined with GPS, known as Assisted GPS or A-GPS, and sometimes provides geolocation facilities for devices which don’t have onboard GPS. WPS is what allowed the first iPhones and the iPad, both of which lack GPS, to position themselves relatively accurately and WPS also forms part of the W3C Geolocation system which allows web browsers to get a location fix. WPS isn’t as accurate as GPS but most of the time it’s good enough. Both SkyHook Wireless and Google maintain WPS databases, which allow you to geolocate based on the publicly accessible unique address (the MAC address) that every wifi access point broadcasts, regardless of whether the access point is open, closed or encrypted. This isn’t a flaw or a vulnerability, it’s how your laptop or mobile phone seeks out and connects to a wifi network.

Again this is nothing new. But the crucial part is that either implicitly or explicitly this is done by opting into the service. Either by configuring a service, by installing an application or by saying “yes it’s OK to use my location“.

But what is new is that by going “mainstream“, location sharing is now also ripe for abuse.

One indication of this abuse is the recent news that free apps on the Android platform are secretly sharing A-GPS location without the user being aware of it. One could argue that when installing the app this is listed as one of the capabilities …

This application can access the following on your phone:
Your location
coarse (network based) location, fine (GPS) location

… but just like the EULA, or End User License Agreement, people rarely read the small print and simply click through to get to the “good stuff“.

Another indication is the recent proof of concept that allows a malicious web page to exploit a user being logged into their wifi access point’s web based administration console, grab the MAC address of the access point and utilise a third-party WPS web service to geo-locate the user. Admittedly this is a proof of concept; it requires a very specific set of circumstances to be in place in order to work … a vulnerable wifi router, visiting a malicious site with the exploit installed, being logged in as an administrator on the wifi access point’s console at the time of visiting the malicious site.

But we should all be warned. As location goes mainstream and becomes ubiquitous, so does the attention of those who would abuse and exploit this.

As a footnote, the inspiration for this post came from Paul Clarke, who spotted the geolocation exploit proof of concept. In addition to taking a damn fine photograph, Paul also writes equally as well. If you don’t read his blog, you should.

Photo Credits: Stefan Andrej Shambora on Flickr.
Written and posted from the Nokia gate5 office in Berlin (52.53105, 13.38521)

Where 2.0 – Hype (or Local?)

Sometimes writing a talk and putting together an accompanying slide deck is an education in itself. You set out with a point you want to make and in researching the evidence to back up your assertions you find out that the point you originally wanted to make isn’t actually correct. You could give up at this point, which is not to be recommended as you’re already on the conference schedule, or you could accept that your reasoning was flawed in the first place and make your talk instead centre on why you were wrong.

Thus it was with the researching and background behind my talk at Where 2.0 in San Jose on Wednesday. Originally entitled as a declaration, it soon became obvious that “Ubiquitous location, the new frontier and hyperlocal nirvana” was missing a very significant question mark.

The audience seemed a trifle bemused when I told them that the talk was brought to them “by the number three and the word local (hyper and micro)“, but when I mentioned that it included “a theory” a Mexican wave of shoulder slumping swept the (packed) room, followed in short succession by a long sigh.

I couldn’t blame them.

Luckily attention perked up when I mentioned that it was my Theory of Stuff (Stuff? Stuff? Huh?) and illustrated this point with a scene from the classic Monty Python Anne Elk (Miss) and her Theory sketch.

you may well ask, chris, what is my theory?

So, to the talk. Just as “the wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose them” (apocryphally attributed to Grace Hopper), the wonderful thing about hyperlocality is that it has so many definitions, but a summation of these seem to agree on:

  1. entities and events located in a well defined, community area
  2. intended for consumption by residents of or visitors to that area
  3. created by a resident of or visitor to that area

That’s three elements and continuing the number three, hyperlocality needs to overcome three matching hurdles, three geo hurdles and three location hurdles

  1. the ability to have scannable, parseable content
  2. the ability to join users to the content
  3. the ability to determine what is local and what isn’t in that content
  1. the ability to scan and parse content for geographic references
  2. the ability to determine where a user is located
  3. the ability to determine what is local to a user and what isn’t relative to the user
  1. the ability to use IP location
  2. the ability to use GPS
  3. the ability to use A-GPS

(the third one there is an artifact of the need to make the “number three meme” work and I throw my hands up in surrender for that piece of artifice. Mea culpa)

what is it for and why would anyone use it?

While we’re on the subject of the “number three meme” there’s also three genera of hyperlocality

  1. “classic” hyperlocal; taking, refining and creating local news (, Patch)
  2. “corporate” hyperlocal; where a corporation removes their brand to fit in with the local community (Starbucks and the 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in NYC)
  3. “user” hyperlocal; creating and delivering localised content and information based on checking in (Foursquare, Gowalla, Rummble, etc)

The meme continues with the level of granularity at which hyperlocal services operate:

  1. “local”, at county level (Washington Post / Loudon)
  2. “hyperlocal”, at city of neighbourhood level (Placeblogger)
  3. “microlocal”, at block level (Everyblock)

So far, so (hyper)local. There’s good exemplars of all of the above, in operation, right now. But there’s also several elephants in the room, looming large and waving their trunks for attention.

Is location that ubiquitous? We all say it is but where’s the proof? So 21% of mobile handsets are classed as smartphones (though not all of those have location capabilities), what about the remaining 79%. That’s not that ubiquitous is it?

Then there’s the issues of location and privacy; when location enablers such as Yahoo’s Fire Eagle and Google’s Latitude were launched we had lots of hand waving, foot stamping and Big Brother references from privacy activists, some of which was warranted, some of which were just pleas for publicity.

Most matching of users and content and ad inventory is dependent on technologies which derive location from an IP address. That’s simply not good enough for hyperlocal coverage where the difference between an IP location and a GPS location can be over 10 miles; that’s not even local let alone hyper or micro local.

User hyperlocal isn’t without problems either. Gowalla won’t let you check in unless your GPS lock agrees with the location of a place, eliciting cries of “but I’m here dammit”. Yelp has … issues on how it undertakes hyperlocal. Foursquare allows you to become Mayor of The North Pole from the confort of your own sofa and Fake Mayor on the iPhone bypasses Foursquare altogether.

So the outlook for hyperlocal is all hype then, obviously?

Well not quite. The number of location capable smartphones will continue to grow with 5 million mobile handsets predicted by 2011. Foursquare is growing at a phenomenal rate hitting the 1 check in per second mark recently. 33% of us now read and consume news from a mobile handset and we seem to be quite happy with displaying our location history via check ins, a far cry from the location hysteria of 2 years ago.

This year at Where 2.0 the view of the geo-scape was significantly different from the previous year; I don’t doubt that will be the same for Where 2.0 in 2011. See you all there.

Written at Where 2.0 2010 in the San Jose Marriott (37.330323, -121.888363) and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Deliberately (and Unexpectedly) Tracking My Journey

I’ve been tracking my journey and in doing so inadvertently uncovered a sea change in the way in which we view the whole thorny issue of location tracking.

Yesterday, Ed Parsons and I drove from London to Nottingham and back to attend the one day Supporting the Contextual Footprint event run by the Horizon Digital Economy Research institute at the University of Nottingham and I had Google Latitude running on my BlackBerry, with location history enabled, as I usually do.

Unofficial Google Latitude T-Shirt

Using the pre smartphone, pre GPS, pre Latitude method of writing it down, the journey went something like this:

  • On Thursday afternoon, leave the Yahoo! office in London.
  • Walk to Piccadilly Circus Tube station and catch the westbound Piccadilly Line.
  • Alight at Heathrow Terminals 1,2, 3 station.
  • Pick up a rental car at Avis.
  • Go home and sleep.
  • On Friday morning, wake up, and leave London.
  • Drive to Nottingham, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for coffee.
  • Attend the event in Nottingham.
  • Drive back to London, stopping at Warwick Services on the M40 for more coffee.
  • Drop rental car off at Heathrow.
  • Take car home and sleep.

Nothing too controversial there. Using the smartphone, with GPS and with Latitude method of using my BlackBerry, the journey becomes much more detailed and visual but also shows curious blips where I appear to dance around a location. All the more mysterious as they seem to happen when I know I’m in one place and not moving, until I realise they’re probably AGPS locks from wifi or cell tower triangulation, kicking in for when my GPS can’t get a satellite lock. Playing back the journey on the Google Latitude site looks like this:

Despite the fact that I i) explicitly installed Google Mobile Maps on my BlackBerry, ii) explicitly enabled Latitude in Google Mobile Maps and iii) explicitly enabled location history in my Google Latitude account, a little over 12 months ago, this would have been controversial enough to whip the tabloid media into a privacy infringing frenzy. Looking back to February 2009 in my Delicious bookmarks shows headlines such as Fears that new Google software will spy on workers and Google lets you stalk your friends (which are just plain factually wrong), together with the pointed MPs claim Google Latitude is a threat to privacy: Irony-meter explodes from cnet.

As I went about the events of the day, I checked into my accounts on both Foursquare and on Gowalla. Just take a look at where I checked in and the sequence of check ins.

Tracking my journey; Gowalla

To start with I check in at the Yahoo! UK office, followed by

  • Piccadilly Circus Tube Station
  • Terminal 1 (Heathrow)
  • Avis (Heathrow)
  • Warwick Services (M40)
  • Park Inn (Nottingham)

… which is pretty much a simplified version of the above two journeys. I’m tracking my journey here too but where location based social networks are concerned, the media is far more accommodating and enthusiastic; 12 months after Foursquare’s launch, 500,000 users, 1.4M venues and 15.5 checkins (with Gowalla either neck and neck, out in front or lagging behind according to differing sources) the most shrill piece of negative publicity that Foursquare was able to garner was a mashup which looked for people publicising check ins on Twitter and inferred that this was an open invitation to the criminal element.

The value proposition of Google Latitude has always been in getting the consumer comfortable with sharing their location with a third party and with your social graph, which isn’t good enough for most people to grasp. The value proposition of checking in, keeping tabs on your friends and seeing what they’re doing is far more palatable and easier for the consumer to grasp with media coverage pretty much limited to ohh, look at the funny people obsessively checking in sort of article.

As an aside, if I was at Foursquare or Gowalla I’d be looking to mine the rich vein of stealth data that their users are generating at each check in, as it’s producing a geotagged and categorised set of local business listings and points of interest. For now though, there’s no public sign that either company are doing this, choosing instead to continue to grow their user base and to roll out into new cities and countries.

In the space of a year and with a different face, location tracking has gone from being Big Brother to being one of the hottest pieces of social networking with people at the recent SXSW in Austin TX actively complaining about check-in fatigue because there’s so many of these services (FoursquareGowallaLooptWhrrlBrightkiteBurbn,MyTownCauseWorldHot PotatoPlancast) to choose from and trying to check into them all can take anything up to 10 minutes.

If all of this talk on location tracking sounds interesting and you’re in San Jose CA the week after next at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 locationfest can I strongly recommend that you check out the founder of, fellow Brit John McKerrell‘s session on Why I Track My Location and You Should Too. As long as it doesn’t clash with my Where 2.0 session of course!

Photo Credit: moleitau on Flickr.
Written at the Park Inn, Nottingham (52.970538, -1.153335) and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The Location Battle Between You and Your Phone

Whenever I talk about the privacy implications inherent in sharing your location with an app or service, I keep coming back to the idea that it’s essential to be your own source of truth for your location. This is a slightly verbose way of saying that you need to be able to lie about your location or that you need to be able to say “no, I really am here” despite what other location contexts such as GPS, cell tower triangulation or public wifi MAC address triangulation may have to say on the matter.

Of course, it’s never quite as straightforward as that and here’s why. The two location based mobile services that are getting a lot of coverage at the moment are FourSquare and Gowalla. They both rely on their users checking into a location by saying “here I am” and as a neat side effect they’re generating a geo-tagged set of local business and POI listings, thus verifying and adhering to my Theory of Stuff. But more about that in my next post, for now let’s concentrate on their user’s location.

Much has been made of FourSquare’s approach to checking in; you’re presented with a list of places nearby, generated according to your A-GPS location, for you to check into. But you can also search for places and check into them as well. Some commentators view this as a failing in their model, allowing for someone to check in to a location and maintain their Mayor status, from their comfort of their own sofa. Now granted if you wish to game FourSquare this will allow you to do so, but it also allows you to be your own source of truth. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stood in the middle of the concourse in London’s Waterloo Station and Waterloo has not been amongst the choices of place that FourSquare presents me to check into, yet I’ve been able to do so by searching for the place and then forcing FourSquare to accept that “yes, I really am here“.

Gowalla takes a different approach and relies entirely on the accuracy of the A-GPS system on my phone. If your phone doesn’t agree with you on the matter of location then you can’t check in, as the screen capture below shows.

I’m currently in California visiting the Yahoo! mothership; at the time when I took this screenshot I was seated in Yahoo! Building E, which already exists as a spot in Gowalla. My iPhone disagreed with me and insistent I was some 120 meters away in the middle of the Lockheed Martin parking lot on nearby Moffett Field and as a result it just wouldn’t let me check in. FourSquare, also taking its cue from the A-GPS on my iPhone had the same problem but was quite happy to let me override this and check in to its version of the Yahoo! Building E place.

So which approach provides the best user experience? I’d strongly argue that the Gowalla approach frustrates users by effectively saying I know better than you, whilst FourSquare’s approach, whilst able to be gamed and abused, allows the user to insist that they do know best in these circumstances. Only time will tell which approach will succeed, but being your own source of  truth continues to be of major significance when sharing your location with the world at large.

Written at the Sheraton Hotel, Sunnyvale, California (37.37159, -122.03824) and posted from the Yahoo! campus, Sunnyvale, California (51.5143913, -0.1287317)

Posted via email from Gary’s Posterous